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Janet Raffel, 58

She relies on the kindness of strangers.
Photograph: Erica Gannett Public Eye
By Jake Malooley |

Madison Street and Wabash Avenue

What’s it like navigating downtown? Well, I’m legally blind, but I have about a ten-degree field of vision. Which means I can see a little bit. Enough that I know where I’m going. Not enough to avoid tripping. That’s why I carry the cane.

You rely more on spatial cues? I rely on people! I’ve lived in other cities and had not nearly as easy of a time navigating as I do in Chicago. I’ll be standing on a corner and someone will ask me if I need help crossing the street. People are good about giving me the handicapped seats on buses and trains. The homeless people cheer me on: “You go, girl!” [Laughs] It’s amazing.

Has your vision been impaired since birth? No, I didn’t know until I was in my thirties. I thought everyone sees the way I do. Then I got diagnosed with my condition, retinitis pigmentosa. I had been driving!

Were you accident prone? I got in a few, but no more than other people I knew! [Laughs]

Can people be too helpful? Some visually impaired people feel that way, but I don’t. Even if I decline assistance, I thank them profusely for offering. They’re correct in erring on the side of friendliness.

Have you ever come to someone’s aid? Just recently, I was out in San Francisco at a Walgreens and a completely blind person walked in. Nobody else in the store was looking to help her. So I walked over, grabbed her arm and said, “Where do you need to go?” It was the blind leading the blind!

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